A lot of people seemed fascinated with my story last week of reading the library board minutes as a way of learning about the history of the library system when I arrived in 1983.
I will agree that it was not the most exciting reading — much of it was legal functions related to local government and requirements of the Ohio Revised Code, but mixed with those things were some wonderful stories of providing library service to the public.
Everyone wanted the “stories” of library history, so here are some I found interesting.
When Andrew Carnegie wrote his letter to Steubenville on June 30, 1899, saying that he would donate money for a new public library, he did not specifically say how much money he would provide.
The committee assumed that he would provide funds similar to the Pittsburgh-area libraries that he had already funded, and the $50,000 check that arrived was “surprising” as most of those libraries received three times more than that.
A polite letter from the library board yielded another check for $12,000 but that was all.
Despite reductions in the building size and other expenses, the library was pinched for money, particularly for new books for the collection.
The city library association operated from 1848-1855, and a reading room operated in conjunction with the schools from 1876-1880; yet both earlier libraries had closed and their books were boxed and in storage.
Those collections were given to the new library when it opened in 1902, but the collection was indeed sparse and new books needed to be purchased.
In those days, most publishers were located in New York City, and libraries received new books packed in wooden barrels and shipped by the railroad.
So, how did the barrels get from the railroad depot to the library, some eight blocks apart?
Horse and wagon was the answer but as the library was being completed in 1901, they found that there was no delivery entrance or loading dock — a problem that has plagued the library its whole lifespan.
Poor Ellen Summers Wilson had to open the barrels and carry the books by the armload up the steps as she could find someone to transport them.
Later board minutes discussed the fact that the $4,000 in operating expenses allocated in 1902, no longer covered expenses by 1924 and the library closed for the winter as coal could not be afforded.
In 1957, a new gas-fired steam boiler was installed and the old boiler was literally cut off at the basement floor level and covered with concrete. In our current construction, we found the boiler still exists under the floor still filled with coal and it will be under the feet of staff in their new lunchroom.
As the library system began providing countywide service in 1936, branches and station-stops were developed around the county, and one of the county librarians complained that her little space had a screen door that was worn out and needed to be replaced.
The board debated the need for a new screen door and eventually hired a carpenter to construct a new screen door which delighted the librarian. The first day of use a child ran through the door tearing the screen from the new door and demolishing the frame. The librarian said to “forget it” she would just let the flies in the library.
In the 1930s, “station stops” were established by the library in rural stores to begin providing books to the public. This meant a collection of 50-75 books that rotated from stop to stop.
One stationmaster was pleased to report that she had distributed every book on her shelf, but failed to tell people they were library books and they needed to “return them.”
Her station was empty for a while, but finally word got around that the books needed to be returned — and all was well again after the philosophy of a public library was explained.
The 1930s and 1940s were a time for serious repair for the Carnegie building. Severe roof leaks stained the walls, and bricks and stone fell from the tower damaging the original clay tile roof,
A library patron in 1943 was pleased to return his books to the library, as well as the “brick” that fell off the building and landed on the steps at his feet.
The problem was solved in 1956 with the removal of the top of the tower and the replacement of the roof by today’s slate roof.
(Hall is the assistant director of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County.)